I really cannot remember if birds were a big thing for me as a kid or whether they were just something that was taken for granted and, therefore, not seen. I knew that there were common birds around but they meant nothing special to me. They were just part of my world… like sunshine and wind. I’m trying hard to inspire interest in birds in my youngest grandchildren and it is fun to sit with them and watch birds come to their feeders or fly overhead. Next month we’ll see hummingbirds back at their flowers and feeders I hope. I’m just hoping that they learn to appreciate birds at a much younger age than I did.
I really can’t tie down a date when I can say that I was interested in photographing birds. I can honestly talk about the first time that I purposefully set out to see birds of interest and to photograph them It was February 2, 2004 and my friend Steve Howes and I had traveled to New Mexico for a business meeting in Albuquerque that began at 1:00 PM on that date. I had decided to go a day early, rent a car for personal use and rise early on Monday to drive to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro, New Mexico. I talked to Steve about my general plans and he surprised me a bit when he said that he’d go early as well. Little did I know that he and I would become travel companions for frequent birding trips today.
Our goal was to find the refuge before sunrise and be in a position to witness the “flyout” of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes at or near sunrise. I’d seen a photo of this flyout somewhere that struck me as something I wanted to see. Steve and I met in the hotel lobby at 04:30, jumped in the car and headed south to the refuge. We found the entrance and drove to an area known as “the flight deck”. Thankfully, the refuge provides a decent map and directions. We could hear the birds and saw a few other cars in the parking area. We braced for the cold, grabbed the camera and tripod and walked out to the deck that looks to the east across a broad swamp. We reacted to the sound of the birds. We knew we were in the right place and all we could do was wait.
It was cold…probably in the low 20’s. I asked Steve to record some audio on my little Palm Pilot device and he bravely bared some fingers to make the device perform. We waited, talked to each other and the other folks on the deck. We waited some more. Then it happened. I don’t know if it is known what inspires a great flock of geese to lift off like they do but it is one of the most amazing sights one can see. The sound is rolling and loud as the numbers of birds pull off the lake and ascend. The geese came right at us and barely cleared our heads as they passed over. Oh my… what a sight. What sounds! We looked at each other after the geese were out of sight and just smiled. We had just seen one of the most amazing natural events one can see. Thrilling. There were still several hundred Sandhill cranes on the water and they began lifting off in groups of 2 or 3 or 4. The call of the cranes got etched into my mind and soul that morning. The crane call is one that carries great distances and is unmistakable once heard. We watched until the lake was nearly empty and headed back to the warmth of the car.
For the most part the photography part of the exercise was a bust. I was inexperienced and did not have the knowledge of how to capture the event well. Lots of blurred birds. Shooting into the rising sun doesn’t help matters. I pointed the camera and flailed away, burst after burst. The photo below is one semi-sharp image taken that morning. No good shots of the geese lift off. Few decent photos of the cranes standing in the lake. Really, a totally rookie performance. None-the-less, it was highly educational and a thrilling experience. As we left the refuge to get back to Albuquerque in time for our meeting Steve looked at me and said “that was spiritual”. I’ll never forget that moment and could not agree more.
We stopped at the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio, New Mexico for their famous chili cheese burger. We figured that we might never have another chance to eat this burger made famous by Charles Kuralt’s pronouncement as “the best chili cheese burger in the west”. We just figured it was an early lunch.
Since that day with Steve I’ve been back to the Bosque 3 other times. Once with friend David Gibson, once with Dianne and the last time with friend Eric Vogt. I’ve learned a lot about cranes and bird photography since my first visit but the experience of watching the liftoff remains on the top of my list of great ways to freeze your butt off and watch a marvelous natural event.
So it was on February 2, 2004 that the bird photography bug latched on to me and it has not let go yet. I continue to enjoy time out alone or with Dianne or friends under the pretense of “birding”. Honestly, I tend to think of these trips more as “avoiding chores”. Cranes are always a bonus when I can see them and grab a photo or two. Just the other day I paid a short visit to the Cherry River Fishing Access area in Bozeman, Montana and was thrilled to see three Sandhill cranes foraging in a field near the trail. These birds are wary even though they are large. One bird will always have its head up to watch for danger. Any others in the group forage and occasionally look up to see what’s going on. I took some photos and moved in closer. The birds were calm. I got as close as I thought reasonable and took a few more shots and left the area to the birds. Their rust color shown in the photo below is a characteristic of young birds. I needed to ask for some help on this from my friend and expert bird counsel, Gerry Ellis, since the tail feathers looked very robust to me and I was thinking that they might be stained adults. “Nope” Gerry says… young birds. I am such a rookie.
As I left the area one of the birds began calling. I stopped and watched the bird lift its beak straight up into the air and call and call and call. I could feel the same sense of wonder that I felt during my first visit to the Bosque with Steve. Like Steve noted… it’s still a very spiritual experience.
My friend, Steve Howes, and I had just spent a couple of hours wandering around the 1,049 acre Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge looking for birds. This refuge abuts the Columbia River east of Washougal, Washington. The area is mostly open grass/shrub with some large cottonwood galleries and mixed wetland and riparian species. Walking the trail system lets you walk through a variety of habitats and affords the chance to see some of the 200 species of birds that have been recorded in the area. It’s a great area to visit early in the day since the light hits the meadows and creates great texture and details. Shrub thickets house songbirds. Sloughs provide habitat for a variety of waterfowl and the water edges frequently contain American bittern. It’s my experience to see American goldfinch, Common yellowthroat, Marsh wren, Canada goose, Wood duck, Northern harrier, woodpeckers, Great white egret and a variety of sparrows during a walk that might last 1 to 1.5 hours. Not a bad way to spend time alone or with a friend.
As Steve and I headed back toward our car anticipating a traffic-filled trip back through Portland we entered into a short corridor of what look to be mature willow that had been burned a couple of years prior. As usual, we were taking our time and talking. The sun was setting in the west as we entered the thicket and heard a dramatic noise behind us but very near. Steve saw the owl first and I followed his lead with the camera coming up to my eye. It was big so I figured it had to be a Great horned owl. When I said so Steve was quick to correct me… “That’s a Long-eared owl”. I looked through the viewfinder and saw a face looking at me that I had never seen before. The sun was favorable for once and the bird was well lit in a the relative darkness of the thicket. Large yellow eyes stared at me. The cheek feathers looked like orange slices and the ear tufts were characteristically upright. At times like this I really can’t believe my luck. A good camera and lens in my hands. A charged battery and a memory card in place (hey, I’ve been known to go out without making sure that the camera is fully ready). And here sat a life bird less than 20 feet away and not appearing to be overly anxious about my presence. After all, it came to me. I was not stalking it. I commenced to take photos and tried to go through my mental list of camera “do’s”… shutter fast enough? Aperture adequate? Where’s the ISO? Any blownout areas showing up? Autofocus on? You may think it strange to do such a mental dance but believe me, I’ve had great opportunities for wonderful bird images spoiled by lack of attention on my part. My cameras show a lot of information in the viewfinders and there really is no excuse to look past the heads-up display of critical information – but I do it all the time. I got about 10 images and the bird shifted position into a darker area. DRAT! I repositioned and tried some more. Branches in front of the bird wanted to grab my focus and the light was dim. I knew my quality time with the bird was over unless something happened to make it move. Well, the bird decided that it was time to cross the trail to the other side of the thicket, go deep into the brush and hide out. Now I could barely see the bird and was looking into the sun. My time with this one was over photographically. We continued to watch the bird until a few other people walked through the area heading out into the refuge. We alerted them to the owl and headed to the car.
Steve’s been with me many times when we bird with a camera and scopes. He knows that I’m impatient and will get the images onto a computer at first opportunity. I prefer to sit with a beer and watch the files ingest. Once they are off the card and in the computer I call for Steve and we both critique the results. I’m a stickler for sharpness and if images are out of focus they get tagged as rejects. When we stumble on an image that is sharp we like to revisit the moment and talk about the bird, the beauty it shows and our good fortune to be able to be “out there” and to witness such wonders. The Long-eared owl was a first for me. As it turns out, it is also the only one I’ve seen. We’ve tried to locate others to no avail. There is still time and I/we will keep looking.
Dianne and I were on our second day of touring Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India on January 17, 2011. We were standing-kneeling-sitting in the back of a Toyota truck that had been outfitted to serve as a tourist safari vehicle. A functional vehicle that eventually ate my shins due to my inability to stand in a stable position as the vehicle lurched beneath me. My discomfort was a small consequence to be in such a wonderful location with nothing to do but enjoy the time, the extreme diversity of animals and plants and the company in which we found ourselves. With us was our Help Tourism naturalist, Shishir Adhikari and national park naturalist Palhous. These two gentlemen typified our Indian friends for the 5 weeks were there. Great senses of humor and well educated. Friendly is an understatement. Palhous was comfortable enough with me that he did not hold back from teasing me about my lens inadequacy. They are used to photographers of the Art Wolfe caliber being part of their tours and my paltry 28-300 mm lens was certainly not up to muster compared to the big lenses “real photographers” brought along. I heard about this a few times. “Too bad you didn’t bring your 600 Mr. Bruce”. Whatever. I pushed the lens and the Nikon D700 it was attached to as far as I could optically and relied on cropping the large files down on our return. This photo is a fairly extreme crop but the quality seems to carry for this type of presentation.
We were bumping down the dirt road when Palhous called out “Roller” and pointed to the roadside. I saw the bird immediately (not always the case) and grabbed focus as the bird sat and scanned the area. I was thrilled by the colors and the new bird for the list. And then it flew. Oh my! The colors intensified and the pattern became more dramatic. I placed a small inset of the bird in flight so you can get an idea of the beauty of the bird. Even Palhous was pleased when he looked at the images on the back of my camera. I’m sure he was still thinking about how good it could have been if I’d been equipped with a monster lens.
Sometimes the story about a bird photograph requires a somewhat lengthy background. This one does so please be patient. The story of the Snowy Owl involves 3 of my birding friends – Steve Howes, Jennifer Loren and Gerry Ellis. As this sequence of bird photos develops you will likely see these names frequently since these folks are central, in many ways, to my “birding” and photo habit. So, let me give you a bit of background about each person as they relate to the photo.
Jenn and Gerry are experienced and avid birders who tolerate my inexperience and seem to enjoy any excuse to get outside to bird. Occasionally they undertake a version of a “big year” and 2014 was one such year in which they were trying to document as many bird sightings as possible. They work at this and build a great list as they travel around and visit friends or birding hotspots. I know that Jenn is particularly fond of owls although I don’t know of a bird species that she doesn’t find interesting, beautiful or fun. But I enjoy tormenting her with the fact that I may have seen an owl when she didn’t. We know it’s just in good fun but, still, I enjoy the tease. Gerry is a global birding fellow and travels extensively as he pursues and documents one or more passions. His time in the USA is limited many times. I am connected to Gerry in my role as a person who tries to help organize and distribute some of his images to various media and his stock agency. When I get time with Gerry it is always an interesting and dynamic discussion about the project of the day and is often interrupted by a window bird sighting or a cup o’ tea on the patio.
So, the setting so far is that Gerry and Jenn are doing a “big year”, they don’t have a snowy owl on the list yet and I’m sitting in Gerry’s office at his home when my phone rings. Enter the third character in this short play… Steve Howes. Steve lives in Pasco, WA and is a man with whom I share time and many interests. Birding is one such common interest. I answer Steve’s call and he quickly explains that he is sitting on a rural road looking at three Snowy owls. I giggle and tell him to hang on a second so I can put the phone on speaker mode. Once the phone is enabled I ask him to repeat what he just told me so that Gerry could hear it. Yeah, I have a bit of a mean streak. Steve repeats the multiple Snowy owl message and Gerry reacts much as I thought he would. He screams at Steve to not move… that he’d be there soon. Gerry thinks that the Snowy may be one bird that is within reach for the year but might be out of their grasp due to work and travel commitments. Since Jenn is at work and Steve is 3 hours away the idea that Jenn and Gerry would scurry up to Kennewick for the bird is just a fantasy. None the less, the idea that Steve was seeing the owls was tormenting – mildly, but tormenting just the same.
As I finished up my discussion with Gerry I began to form a plan. I’m retired and married to a very understanding lady. I called Steve back to see if I could visit. He’s never turned me down yet. I left Gerry’s place, went home and packed for a visit to Steve’s place. I grabbed my camera gear and some clothes and drove to Pasco. By 2:00 that afternoon Steve and I were looking at two Snowy owls. We began by photographing an owl that was fairly distant but my heart was racing. My first time to see this species. Decent light. The bird was cooperating even though distant. We moved the car forward a bit and discovered a second owl sitting on an old fence post next to the road. Neither Steve or I could believe that it was just sitting there looking at us. I took numerous photos and we edged closer. More images were made. As we left the area we talked about bird karma and our good fortune to be able to see and capture images of this irruptive owl. It was a good day. And yes, I sent an email to Jenn to let her know about our success. Gerry got a copy too and let me know what a lucky cad I was. Yes, it was a good day.
To finish the story, I left Steve’s house early the next morning to go home. I left the Tri-cities area and went back to the 9 Canyon Road area where we’d seen the owls the previous day. I got to spend another hour with a Snowy that morning but the photos are just not as nice. The owl the previous day was a rare opportunity. A bird photographer can’t really ask for much more. Oh wait… there’s that “bird in flight” photo that didn’t happen. Next time. Please, let there be a next time.
Anyone who knows me knows that I always get a bit excited when I get some new camera kit. In the last year I have made a sincere effort to slim down the optics and to switch from Nikon DSLRs to Fujifilm mirrorless DSLRs. The mirrorless is smaller, lighter, cheaper and equal to (or nearly so) my Nikon’s file quality. I sold several Nikon lenses before we left Portland and banked most of the proceeds to wait for the arrival of the new Fuji 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 lens. It is the entry of Fuji into a fairly long focal length lens. Initial reviews were excellent even if they came from sponsored users for the most part. I was excited to get the long waited for lens. It came to our door just as our dear friends, Jenn and Gerry, arrived in town to spend the weekend with us. And so the convergence of good times began… new glass and good friends in town when the weather forecast was great and there were recent reports of birds that would help populate all of our life or year lists. Off we go…
Jenn and Gerry are the most purposeful and deliberate birders I know. They work at it and even though Gerry is frequently out of country they still rack up more bird species seen than others I know who are in the birder camp. Me, I’m still mostly a guy who enjoys the pursuit of a decent bird photo and who is learning the complexities and joy of birding. When we get a chance to venture out birding with Jenn and Gerry we plan a route based on recent bird observations and the desire to add either life birds or additions to other lists. Regardless of what happens, we are outdoors and enjoying the time. As we planned for this visit we hoped to see snowy owls (year bird), gray partridge (life bird for Jenn, year bird for Jenn and Gerry), bohemian waxwings (same as the partridge) and a variety of sparrows that would have all been life birds for me. Gerry has a habit of predicting that we will see at least 70 species over a day or two. The history of his success at meeting this target is quite good.
We met up with J and G shortly after they got skunked looking for the Bohemian waxwings that had been in an East Wenatchee neighborhood for weeks. It’s all part of the game to miss birds that one expects or hopes to see. Whatever. On we go. We headed to the river path that Dianne and I walk frequently. The goal was to ease into the birding with a casual walk on the path that would be punctuated with an IPA endpoint at a nearby pub. We found the usual wigeon, geese, mallards, golden eye and crows. Not a rousing start but a decent warm up. This single female Common merganser was preening nearby and became the first real bird target for the new lens. Gerry, who is a great photographer, and I both looked at the LCD and concluded that the lens was OK if not good. Not a fair test really until the image hits the computer screen but the magnified screen on the back of the camera showed a sharp image. That is exactly what I expected and hoped for.
We shared a pint at the pub and headed for home and dinner. A few more pints disappeared as the evening matured. We laid out our game plan for an extended auto loop on the Waterville Plateau the next day and hit the hay.
After a cup of tea or two and breakfast we set out to find the targeted birds and any others that we could glass and record. Our cameras were ready and the scopes were positioned for easy access. We started up the canyon from Orondo to Waterville and stopped as Gerry began itching to give a listen to and scan a couple of small canyons for canyon wrens or others. Gerry jumped ahead and was listening intently for birds in a small canyon. We soon saw him waving for us to join him and he had all of us listening for the sound of a Canyon wren he’d heard. No luck audibly or visually so we headed on.
The fields of unbroken snow on the plateau looked wonderful below a blue sky as we headed east through Waterville. We saw our first Rough-legged hawk along the way to Withrow.
We had seen frequent reports of Gray partridge at the Withrow grain elevators so we pulled in to take a look. I’d been there a couple of times without success. I honestly believe that other, more accomplished birders like my friend Steve Howes or Jenn and Gerry bring me good luck. Their experience always teaches me how to more effectively participate in this chase. We had all but given up after scouring the area with binoculars and were readying to leave when a single Eurasion Collered Dove stopped us for some reason. Once stopped, two partridge flushed and headed away from us. We backed up and set out to get a better look at them that would qualify for a legitimate sighting. As we walked around several more flushed and we tracked them as they flew and settled in among the weed and rills. Gerry set up his scope and placed it on a pair of Gray partridge. Bingo. Life bird for Jenn. Year bird for J and G. Dianne and I had seen some a few weeks earlier when we drove a similar route with Steve Howes. All of us enjoyed the sight of these pretty birds. The photo below was taken on the previous trip with Steve.
We drove on to the town of Mansfield and stopped at the cemetery that Steve and I had explored a few months prior. We hoped for owls in the big trees and sparrows in the hedge rows. What we got was good viewing of a Swainson’s Hawk flying away from us (life bird for Bruce), a fleeting glimplse of a Moutain bluebird and a clear view of a Snow bunting flying directly overhead. That bird was so white it stuck out vividly against that clear blue sky. Our lists were growing as we headed east of Mansfield to search for Snowy owls.
We drove several roads in the area where the owls had been reported and glassed every pile of rock and hummock that we saw. Actually, I drove and glanced, Gerry, Jenn and Dianne did the real scanning. Nada. We stopped in an intersection for lunch. Gerry made use of the time by walking down the road to look into other areas with his scope. Nada. He did see a Northern shrike but it stayed off our lists since the rest of us were slackers and stayed near the car… and food.
As we approached our lunch spot we saw what we thought was a red-tailed hawk sitting on a power pole. As I drove by Jenn started voicing second opinions and was thumbing through the Sibley’s guide as she convinced us to go back for a better look. The bird was not realy cooperative but we got to see the under-wing feather pattern that led to identifying the bird as a Broad-winged hawk (lifer for Bruce). Identifying a bird can frequently be a challenge with all the seasonal variations they experience, hybridization, morphs and natural variability. Size, shape, flight patterns and plumage are key diagnostics. But sometimes you just have to go back and check again with an authoritative book for reference. We were all glad that Jenn’s doubts resulted in our circling around for a few more views of this bird. Lesson learned.
We headed north toward the Columbia River. Along the way we saw other raptors like this Red-tailed Hawk.
Once on the river we recorded many waterfowl… scaup, bufflehead, geese, ring-billed ducks, golden eye and others. All are beautiful birds but their common presence dulls the thrill of the check mark on the list. We kept moving south to the Beebe Springs Natural Area near Chelan, Washington. I’d driven by there a number of times with Dianne and Steve Howes but had not stopped due to snow packing the access. We all wandered the area to see what it offered. A few sparrows showed up as did a couple of Killdeer. The variety of habitats and proximity to water suggest that this place will be a rich location to visit in a month or two. It’s always nice to have a path through a rich area and I’m betting that if we get there early in the day we will have the area largely to ourselves.
We headed south out of Chelan toward Wenatchee as the sun started to lower to the horizon. Jenn had not seen Bighorn sheep in the wild and I was hopeful that the herd just north of Wenatchee was still hanging around and visible. Gerry spotted them about 100 yards upslope from the highway so we parked and set up a scope to scan them and give Jenn the chance to add another mammal to her list. The photo below is from a previous trip that Dianne and I made about a month ago. Same animals and location, different time.
Once we were back to the house we sat with an adult beverage and Jenn and Gerry went through their routine of documenting the birds seen for the day. Honestly, I was a bit surprised at this process even though I had heard about it several times. The list isn’t official until it is written while enjoying a pint. Gerry pointed out that going through the Sibley book page by page and bird type by bird type allows you to see the birds again which helps reinforce their field marks and relation to others. Good thought I think. Me, I use an app on my phone to log birds during the day. I was hoping that I’d gotten all of the birds entered. I hadn’t and added 2 or 3 more as G and J called out their notes. At the end we’d seen 51 species during the day. There were a few more that Gerry knew were out there but couldn’t count… the Canyon wren he’d heard but not seen and that noone else heard or saw and the Northern shrike he saw at lunch and which we’d not seen because I’m a slacker. We didn’t hit the 70 mark which was a bit of a disappointment only to Gerry.
The next day we added Great Horned Owl to the list as we drove Colockum Canyon south of Wenatchee. Once again, this area will be worth a visit in a month or two. We then retreated to the house and said farewell to J and G as they headed back to Portland. Of course they continued to bird as they drove and added a couple more “first of year” birds to their growing list. The last I heard, Wild Turkey was number 161 for the year.
I opted to go the river park to continue to practice with the new lens. There is always a learning curve with a new lens and this large lens is no different. I practiced panning and shooting as geese, wigeon and goldeneye flew by. A few of the images tell me that I have potential to get decent images if I can catch up to the lens quality. I’ll keep after it.
I took about 17,000 photos in 2015 and decided to sort through them to see which ones stand out for me. It’s challenging to filter images out of the “favored” category but the process makes me think about “WHY” a photo remains or “WHY” it gets rejected. The process is informative. There are a lot of variables involved and it seems that this year the criteria for keeping an image favor “moment” and “people” more than composition, light, contrast and other more technical criteria. So be it. The collage below shows 24 of my favorite images for the year. They are a mix of landscapes, birds, people and circumstances or events. Each has a story about the place, the time, the people who may be involved. I could write an essay on each image but decided to spare you the backstories of the images and leave you to guess or simply shrug and move on. If you have questions or comments then please leave them in the comment section below or send me an email. Thanks.
I’d like to offer a sincere tip of the hat to both Steve Howes and Jon Brazier for their presence or influence on many of the images in the collage. It seems that when I’m with these gents I find interesting things to photograph and they are always patient with me and frequently are encouraging. Thanks Gentlemen.
I do have a favorite photo from the year. It happened as many images do… unpredicted and serendipitous. Dianne and I were at the Northwest Regional High School Rowing Championsips with Barb and Jon Brazier to watch Jon’s great-niece, Katy Gilligham, row with her long time friend Marlee Blue. If you follow this blog you will have seen previous posts about Katy and Marlee. They rock. They are the real deal in the rowing world. As is common at a big event like this there are a lot of spectators and family present to watch, cheer and support. Among Katy’s clan of people were her grandfather, Landon Brazier and her grandmother, Marji. Of course Katy’s parents, Jim and Anne, were there tending to the cooking and such for the Holy Names rowing teams and stopping to cheer and watch when Katy was on the water. Cutting to the chase, Katy and Marlee won the pair boat competition. Yahoo! You can see them after the race as the left-most photo on the bottom row in the collage above. The short recognition of their success – the touch between team mates – is a great moment. My thanks to Dianne for reminding me to not stop shooting once the finish line is crossed. Moments like this are unique and important.
After the ladies returned to shore and stowed the boat away they made their way into the crowd of well-wishers to say hello and get their well deserved personal recognition. After I’d photographed both ladies a few times Jon alerted me to the greeting between Katy and her grandfather. I turned and shot this photo just as Landon and Katy embraced in what I have to believe was a deep, loving statement of their relationship. Lan’s expression is saying, at least to me, “I am so prooud of you” and “I love you”. This is not a great photo technically but it captures such a powerful moment that I just stare at it and say thanks for allowing me into your world and giving me access and permission.
Katy and Marlee’s win ensured them a spot at the US National Championship races in Florida. Katy and Marlee won the pair competition in Florida too. Again, say it with me, these two ROCK. From there they both participated on the United States Youth Rowing Team at the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro. This time they were on an 8 person team. Guess what – they won the gold medal. Yes, Katy and Marlee are WORLD CHAMPIONS. I know that Lan and Marji, Jon and Barbara were yelling with pride as they watched little boat animations on the computer coverage. I know we were.
My thanks to Dianne and everyone else who has accompanied, encouraged and tolerated me when I had a camera along this year. It was a good year and I can only hope that 2016 brings some great images to the screen as well.
First, a serious tip of the hat to Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat, a book that documents the University of Washington men’s crew team that won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. Even if you know nothing about the sport of rowing the book is a great read about team work, perserverance, goal setting, leadership and accomplishment. Brown provides a great insight to the sport and I learned a lot about crew and what it must be like to be part of a successful team.
My thoughts about this blog have been developing for 3 years. Given that, the blog is likely to be a long bit of story telling. The story is about two young ladies, Katy Gillingham and Marlee Blue, who row for the Holy Names Academy (HNA) team in the Seattle area. I met them 3 years ago at the US Rowing Northwest Rowing Championships at Vancouver Lake, Washington.
You can click on any image in the post to view a larger version.
I knew nothing about crew racing in 2013 other than I enjoyed watching the sport on the Olympics. I’d never been to a race and knew nothing about the hardware, the training, the language, the strategies. I went as the result of an invitation by Katy’s great-uncle to tag along with him and maybe take some pictures of the ladies. I’m glad I was invited and even more glad that I took the challenge.
The Girls in the Boat
Katy and Marlee are currently high school seniors at HNA and will graduate soon. Both were very good soccer players in the Seattle area when they started attending HNA. They both tried out for the school’s soccer team and did not make the cut. I’m pretty sure that both ladies were upset and disappointed by the turn-down. That experience, however, led them to try out for the school’s rowing team. And so it began. Two fish put into a pond where they could take their fitness, strength and smarts and grow into trophy fish. Their friendship grew and they are, today, as tight as friends can be. They balance each other emotionally and have each other’s back. They match well physically. Both are tall, strong and very resilient.
And they are determined. They set goals and, for the most part, meet them. At least one goal remains – to win a national championship in a two person boat. The next few weeks will tell us if they make that happen. Next year they begin attending the University of Washington where they will take their rowing to the next level.
Last summer both ladies represented the U.S.A. as members of the U.S. Youth Rowing team that raced in Hamburg, Germany. After that race Marlee continued on to China and raced as a member of the U.S. Youth Olympic team. They are the real deal and the only world-class athletes that I can claim to know personally.
Both ladies row in a variety of boats. I first saw them in a 4-boat, then rowing as a pair. This year they both raced as part of the HNA Varsity 8 boat. I think it is significant that they are always members of a team. I’ve seen one photo of Katy in a single boat but I’ve never seen her race one. It’s always a team. In the rowing world that is HUGE.
Rowing on a team
The Boys in the Boat tells the story of what makes a successful team when you put 8 people into a boat and push them to find their own strengths and to realize how that fits into the strengths of the others. The coach watches the individuals and places them strategically in specific seats on the boat. The “stroke” seat, sitting next to the coxswain, sets the pace for the others based on the coxwain’s orders. Other members of the team mirror “the stroke” and when they hit the sweet spot the team rows as one. It’s a beautiful moment and can only be achieved with a lot of practice. Practice means a lot of early morning workouts on the water and more in the gym. It means nutritional awareness and consuming the vast number of calories to allow the body to perform.
Rowing demands a great deal of comittment from the individual. The team demands an unbelievable amount of comittment of an individual to the other members. The sport is vastly more technical and physchological than I ever imagined. Synchronized sport teams, like swimming or dancing, require a high degree of team awareness and hours of practice to reach a high level of performance. But rowing ties the team together along the length of the boat. Breaks in the stroke cadence or placement can be seen from the shore. These breaks affect every other member of the boat directly. It’s not just a penalty as a form point, it is a loss of power. Efficiency drops and the team slows. Simple to understand, very hard to do without the occassional break such as an oar that seems to snag in the water due to poor placement or obstruction. Rowers call this “catching a crab”. It is the rowers equivalent of an ice skater touching a hand as they land a jump or a bicycle racer touching the tire of the bike ahead. It is not a good thing but it happens.
The coach oversees the training and learns the strengths and abilities of each team member. A successful coach pairs racers based on their experience with the members during practice and racing. Reward comes from watching the team perform as a unit and to the level of their abilities. Winning is a goal but I have to believe that a team member and coach appreciate the feeling of total synchronization during a session. The sweet spot. 4, 8 or 16 arms and legs moving together. Power is generated and transferred to the water. The boat moves smoothly and easily.
It is the coxswain who rules the boat. Often a smaller person, the coxswain is the one person who can see ahead and is responsible for setting the pace and demanding the stroke rate. They know the rowers and can see performance in the team based on body movement and muscle expression. The rowers who are giving their all need to trust the coxswain’s commands. The coxswain is responsible for implementing the race strategy. Like a jockey on a race horse, the coxswain times the performance and demands that muscles burn on command to acceleate… “give me 10 hard ones”.
The coxswain takes control of the team and the boat as the boat is lifted off the cradles or rack by the rowers. They grab the boat in unison as the coxswain tells them to lift. They walk the boat to the water as the coxswain clears the path of onlookers (yes, that’s me) and steers the team through obstructions. The rowers don’t hesitate to do as asked. On the HNA team the stroke seat rower lifts the coxswain and gently carries them to the boat once it is on the water. The rowers move onto the boat as only a practiced group can… carefully and timed with each other. I am confident that novice rowers learn that inattention to the art of getting into the racing shell means that you swim. Again, not a good thing. But once everyone is in the boat and adjusted the coxswain begins giving orders to row and they move away.
The racing shell
The Boys in the Boat is also the story of a master racing shell maker named George Y. Pocock. The book details the art of building a boat. Today’s boats are very different from the wood crafts that Pocock built. Carbon fiber and fiberglass are used extensively. The boats are beautiful things to look at up close. The mechanisms that allow the oars to not only hold fast to the boat but to match the rower’s arm length are critical to the boat’s efficiency. I’ve watched Katy and Marlee adjust the settings on the oar locks and inspect the soundness of the mounts in their pre-race routine. The seats glide easily along a track as the rower contracts and expands during a single stroke cycle. I am sure that there are many more adjustments that are made prior to a race. Each team seems to have a person in the camp area who has tools and is overseeing the setup. Like any team, there are equipment managers who are responsible for the gear. In the world of rowing that could mean being responsible for the transport and maintenance of a set of shells. A full boat trailer going down the road to a race may contain boats worth US$1,000,000. Gulp.
Rowing has been called “the worst spectator sport”. I’d challenge that a bit based on experience with watching bicycle road races where you likely stand in one place to watch about 15 seconds of race as the pack rolls by. This after hours of waiting. Bicycle races are notoriously late to start and unpredictable due to a wide variety of factors. Rowing regattas start on time. If the race you are interested in is to start at 08:14 it starts at 08:14 unless something is terribly wrong. You get to watch the boats approach for a fairly long time as they approach the finish. You can photograph the approacing boats from quite a distance if you have a long lens available. Perspective can be an issue but the compression of a telephoto lens makes teams that are rowing “neck-to-neck” visually interesting.
Photography is all about light. I’ve photographed HNA races in bright sun and diffuse, cloudy skies. I’ll take diffuse light any time. The photo above was shot two days ago at Vancouver Lake, Washington and shows the HNA 8 boat with others as they approach the middle of the race. The HNA boat is the one closest to the camera and in the lead. Since the racer’s backs point to the direction of the boat movement all you can see is the rower’s backs and the coxswain’s face. That’s Katy with the backward ball cap sitting in the stroke seat next to the coxswain. Marlee is in the 7 seat next to Katy. This light allowed a fast shutter speed and lowered contrast. No shadows from ball cap brims. No shadows in eye sockets. A slightly higher ISO was needed but nothing that the Nikon D800 can’t handle. The light made the lake beyond the boats appear “painterly”. Some of the shots are just beautiful to look at if you like sweet light.
Sports photography is all about catching peak moments. Rowers go through a cycle as they contract to begin a stroke. The oar lifts out of the water as the rower begins to contract. At full contraction the oar reenters the water and the rower pushes against the foot block as they pull into the oar. Backs, legs, arms and core all engage to power the stroke. There really isn’t a single “peak moment”. There is a beauty in seeing all the oars raised to a similar position. There is beauty in the form of a fully contracted body as it prepares to unleash power. There is beauty in the symmetry of rower’s postions at the end of the stroke as their bodies lean back to squeeze the last bit of power from their bodies. But, for me, the closest thing to a peak moment in a rowing cycle is when the oar is in the water and the rower is just beginning to exert full strength into the stroke. I see the carbon fiber oar bend (not a trivial expression of power by the way) and the muscles in the rower’s shoulders and arm fully expressing their exertion.
The Girls in the Boat – a photo essay
Katy and Marlee represent a lot that is good in the sport and, frankly, in the U.S. Young, strong, bright, dedicated and supported by family and friends they have achieved great success. I started to gain closer access to the two and their team at the end of the rowing season in 2013. I was too late as the rowers moved apart after the rowing season ended. I kept after it by suggesting to Katy’s mother, Anne, that I’d like a chance to record Katy’s beauty and strength at this important time in her life. Katy and her family are a remarkable group of people. Like many parents who have kids in sports, Anne and Jim spend countless hours driving to and watching or working at events in which their kids are participating. They spend a lot of time and money to make it possible for the kids to participate and grow into a sport. Katy (rowing) and brother Jack (baseball) fully realize how lucky they are to have the parents they have and the extended family that shows up at an event or roots from afar. They show their appreciation with smiles, hugs and thank you cards – a dying form of expressing gratitude. But, like other families with working parents and kids in school and sports, they are all very busy. I kept after it with Anne though and finally got time on their calendar to photograph Katy under controlled conditions. In my discussions with Anne I always mentioned that it would be wonderful to have Marlee participate if she could and was willing. BINGO!!!! We arranged a weekend photo shoot at Katy’s house and both Katy and Marlee would be there and available.
Dianne and I approached the photo shoot with ideas of images that we wanted to create. It was our full intent to shoot the session in a simple studio setting and then composite the shots of the ladies into different backgrounds. We shot most of an afternoon and evening and then continued into the next morning. We transformed the living room into a studio with remarkable cooperation by Anne and Jim. Me: “Can we squeeze into the Christmas tree area by moving packages and decorations?” Anne: “No problem”. Me: “Can we bring that very long oar into the room over there? Sure, that means opening a window and taking off the screen”. Anne: “No problem”. Me: “Can we get some music going here?” Anne: “I’ll get the speakers”. Me: “Can I take up your carpet so we can see and use that wonderful hardwood floor”? Jim: “No problem”.
We orchestrated shots with both ladies and asked them to just interact with each other. We shot and shot and shot. After the studio session Anne took us to the HNA boat house to gather background scenes for compositing. Next was the University of Washington boat house for more backgrounds. We also were given access to the Rose City Rowing boat house in Portland, Oregon to get more variety in the background scenes. One nice thing about shooting with compositing in mind is that the possibilities are endless. As new backgrounds are captured new composites are possible. I love the flexibility the technique provides.
The following images are some of my favorites from the photo shoot/compositing efforts. We presented prints and files to the families last weekend so we can now present these images publicly.
I have gained a lot from our experience photographing Katy and Marlee over 3 years. I’ve learned about a sport and gained deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a rowing team. I’ve gained friendships with Katy’s and Marlee’s families. I’ve learned new photographic processing techniques and gained skills taking photos of crew races as they take place. As a retired guy with a camera it is always rewarding to learn and be involved with people. This rowing experience has been rich.
I’ll close with a photo taken last weekend at the US Rowing Northwest Championships at Vancouver Lake, Washington. The photo shows Katy and Marlee after winning the pairs race on Friday. Two young ladies on their way to the national championships (again) but celebrating the moment of success as teammates do… a touch can communicate so much. No words but no loss of meaning.
My good friend Jon Brazier has introduced me to many interesting and educational things. He knows that I like a challenge with photography so when he suggested that I might want to go with him and wife Barbara to the crew races at Vancouver Lake north of Portland I agreed almost instantly. Jon’s great niece, Katy Gillingham rows for Holy Names Academy in the Seattle area and her team was going to compete. Since I knew nothing about the sport Jon and I talked and realized that, well, neither of us knew much except that there were slight boats with a varied number of people on board and that the boats go fast. To do that takes work… a lot of work. I had no idea. I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that there are a variety of ways to photograph a crew race… from the bank, from a boat or from the air. The best shots showing the racers’ faces, intensity and musculature were taken from a boat. I had no access to a boat that was permitted on course during the races. I saw some great shots taken from a drone or a bridge or plane. There are no bridges at Vacouver Lake and I don’t have a drone (probably not a good idea anyway). So, the shooting would be from the bank.
We visited the lake the day before the races and made a tentative plan to shoot from the beach at the finish area if we were allowed to be there. We were. We also began to understand that we needed to know which lane and heat Katy and crew would be in. Close lanes were a distinct photographic bonus. I figured with my luck Katy’s shell would be in the farthest lane and would be blocked from view by others. Time would tell.
We headed to the races the next day and found the school’s camp site and boats. There were hundreds of high school kids milling around and cheering on teams involved in the on-going races. We sorted out our options and got information from Anne, Katy’s mother, about the race time and lane. Like swim racing, a “heat sheet” is vital to anyone who wants to see a particular team or person race. Without that info you might as well go home.
We also learned that the racers go into a zone prior to a race. They get their game faces on and tend to the boat. Oar locks are adjusted. Seats are tested and adjusted as necessary. I’m making this stuff up based on what I observed from a distance. Let’s just say that the details for each racer are fine tuned into the shell and oars. Each rower is physically different and requires a different setup. You don’t interact with the racers at this point. Kind of like you wouldn’t ask Venus Williams about her new clothing line before a match. Leave ’em alone… stay safely out of the way.
I’d heard about Katy’s best friend, Marlee Blue, from both Jon and Anne. I got to see Marlee from a distance but never talked to her that day. Onsite she is all business. Don’t mess with a strong woman preparing for a major race. I’m glad I didn’t actually need someone to tell me that.
As the team moved their shell to the water for the race I got the first chance to shoot some photos. I learned that the coxswain runs the team. The smallest person on the team carries clout. Every member listens and obeys. Lift… yup. Move… yup. I began to understand that this was a team of high school ladies who worked together toward a goal after hours of training leading to the race. Every member of the team contributes their all but they are totally dependent on the others in the boat. At its finest moment, a crew will perform as one being, responding to the coxswain’s orders and translating their incredible strength into motion. Oars move in unison. Arms pull. Legs extend and retract. Backs bend and the boat slices through the water.
We watched the race, shot some photos and cheered as the Holy Names Academy team registered a time that meant they got to go the National Championship and to race at the Head of the Charles regatta… a very big deal. They went on to win the Head of the Charles race… no trivial feat and a very proud time for the ladies. I began to understand that the team, led by Marlee and Katy, was the real deal. These are national caliber athletes perfoming in a demanding sport at the highest level. I began to hatch a plot to try to gain access to them for some photos where I could control the action. After the Head of the Charles race I broached the idea to Anne about a team shoot to document the team’s accomplishments. The calendar won and the team was off doing other things… no shoot. I went on record that I would like to shoot Katy in the future… Marlee too if she’d consent and was available.
We went back to Vancouver Lake in 2104 and watched the Holy Names team place high enough for a trip to the National Championships again. This time the Nationals were being held on the west coast for the first time. Jon, Barbara, Dianne and I traveled to the Sacramento, California area to cheer them on. It is always a treat to be part of these races. The Gillingham family is a lot of fun to be around and we enjoy being part of “inner group” supporting Katy, Marlee and Holy Names. Katy’s team took second place at the Nationals. Not a bad outcome but disappointing to not win. The Holy Names team did return to the Head of the Charles regatta as the reigning champions and… hold on… they won again. These ladies are the real deal.
One more bit of history and I’ll get to the main point of this extended blog. Katy and Marlee were both on the USA Youth National team that competed in Hamburg, Germany in August 2014. Marlee then continued on to China to race as part of the USA Youth Olympic team in a two person boat. I should know these results but don’t. My bad. Regardless of the results, both ladies gained tremendous experience and exposure. Both Jon and I realized that we knew National Team caliber athletes. That’s not something I ever thought I’d enjoy.
As the summer of 2014 moved along I kept hinting to Anne that I’d like to photograph Katy (and Marlee). I sent a photo of a high school wrestler that Dianne and I did a couple of years ago to illustrate the idea. It’s dramatic lighting in the studio and composited into a setting after the shoot. I’m certainly not the first to do this but I found the work of Joel Grimes to be particularly inspiring. I’ve had good fortune to shoot a remarkable young lady swimmer and a number of advanced ballerinas this way and the experience has encouraged me. Anne presented the idea to Katy who, being Katy, agreed. I didn’t mention that Katy is just a wonderful, energetic, bubbly and smart young lady. Her smile and her backward ballcap are iconic. The photo above is one of the few in which she is not wearing a ballcap turned backward. Maybe it blew off. We were not certain about Marlee but had our fingers crossed. I kept renewing the idea that it would be great if she would be able to participate even if it was just to be there to encourage and support Katy during the shoot.
We won the lottery and got to travel to Seattle, stay at the wonderful Gillingham home with the whole family and got to photograph both Katy and Marlee at our pace. They both made themselves available to us Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. We set up our little studio in the Gillingham living room between the Christmas tree and the hall. Jim and Anne Gillingham took off storm windows so a 13 foot oar could fit into the house. They blocked out sun from our set. We got everything we wanted… remarkable. We had a great dinner and watched a movie with the group before bed. Nothing like moving into a family’s home and enjoying all the comforts available. Gillinghams rock.
During the shoot we cranked on some music and took turns photographing the two ladies. Our goal was to create a set of images that contrasted their beauty with their stength. Jewelery, an American flag and an oar were the main props. The ladies began to relax and get into the moment as we moved along. What a treat to have two beautiful and exceptionally fit young ladies in front of the camera. Their interactions, laughs and jokes made the session.
I’ve released two images to the ladies so far and post them here for the first time. First, Katy Gillingham looking confident and proud. At home in the boat house and one with the oar.
Rowing is a sport of strength and technique. It is also a very cerebral. Each person on the boat is focused on the task. Pain is part of the experience. It takes concentration and dedication to row competitively. It did not surprise us to hear that both ladies enjoy yoga. This pose with Marlee just seemed like the thing to do. I hope the contrast of her strength and the sense of calm are evident to you. Each lady went through the same poses so the final composites will be balanced but I wanted to present one for each lady here. I can’t wait to work on the others.
Thank you Katy Gillingham and Marlee Blue. Thank you Anne, Jim and Jack Gillingham for hosting this photo session and for allowing my wish to come to pass. It was a remarkable time and I’m humbled.
My first experience with a “photo line” was at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near San Antonio, New Mexico. The line is a semi-orderly arrangement of people who are all trying to take a unique photo of a common scene. Good luck with that. At the Bosque it looks something like this.
Quite an assortment of people and gear. Overall, they respect each other and get along well. There is a fair amount of banter and the group has always seemed to be enjoying the camaraderie. Proof that Nikon and Canon shooters can get along in an unsupervised setting. There is no danger to these people other than getting smacked by a careless tripod movement or turning an ankle. It’s a safe situation for all. No cranes were hurt by anyone taking photos.
At the Sumpter Valley Railway Photographer Weekend it was different in many ways. First, there were fewer people. Second, there was personal risk involved a great deal of the time. Third, because of the risk it was a quasi-supervised group. The photo coordinator did a good job of explaining that we were on a train and that it doesn’t stop or start quickly, it weighs a lot and it is always a good idea to give it a wide enough berth to prevent getting hit. Seems intuitive really but we are a group of impassioned photographers and sometimes forget where we are… just sayin’. Some of the group had done this many times before and spoke the language. Some of us were studying and learning our way around. We were all walking on and over loose stones that had been piled up by the gold dredge decades ago. Footing was anything but sure and the chance of a turned ankle or fall was real. Gratefully, no one took too big of a fall and everyone walked off under their own power at the end of the day.
The photo line at one of our stops looked like this:
You can see the steam from the locomotive rising above the dredge pile on the upper left. Everyone is placed to get the best view possible with hope to get a reflection of the engine and cars as it moves by. The video guys are front and center and holding claim to the prime locations…. fast walkers those guys. Some people like the guy on the right in the gray shirt and with the crossed camera straps always seemed to just fit in and find a way to shoot. We all did really but he never really made a point of trying to get positional advantage. By the way, he came from Vermont for this tour and a few others earlier in the week. He was, shall we say, not terribly impressed with Oregon’s fall colors. Go figure.
This group was also pretty well behaved. There was some sense of irritation by one video guy when he got tired of a still photographer bursting away near his microphone. I’ve mentioned that before and it was really the only bit of upset in the group over two days. People with a common objective do seem to be understanding and tolerant as they all strive to get the shot. This is what one of mine looked like.
I will post more traditional train images in the coming days. Please stay tuned.
We spent five marvelous weeks in India in 2011. We stayed mostly in the northeast area for the bulk of our time but ventured west as we neared the end of our stay. We barely landed at the Mumbai airport and we were whisked away to the train station to catch an 8 hour ride to Aurangabad to visit the Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes (amazing sites – highly recommended). When we were driving back to the hotel from Ajanta our guide asked if we would like to stop at the local market since it was “market day” for many people. We never resisted an opportunity to mix in with the locals and found our times in the non-tourist public markets to be some of the richest experiences we had in our time in India. By this time in our trip we were well versed in how we would be received… all eyes on us… especially Dianne… and frequent interludes where we were interviewed to find out our home country, how we were finding India and, ultimately, were asked to take their photo. Music to my ears. Many times people wanted to photograph us using their cell phone and we traded our photo for theirs. Young men were frequently anxious to have their photo taken and this stop was no exception. I had a group of 5 guys all requesting a photo and I was accommodating them as quickly as I could. I’d do little other than try to get them to turn for nice light and was enjoying our interactions. I kept getting bumped in my back and ignored the person for awhile. He was insistent and when I finally turned around I was greeted by a man holding two large cauliflower and indicating he wanted his photo taken. I did not need to be asked twice. Please click on the photo to view a larger version.
I took several photos and then showed them to him on the camera’s LCD. He simply nodded and turned back to the rest of his cauliflower.
I returned to the young guys who had been snickering and joking with Cauliflower Guy during the brief intermission of their photo session. I’d barely gotten into position to photograph a guy when an older man pushed his way in front of the camera, rapidly displacing the young guys. He motioned to me that it was his turn for a photo. The guy was all business and stared at me. I tried a few times to interact and hoped for a smile or small grin. Nothing. I tried to joke with the young guys about how serious he was and they understood and tried to help me out. Nothing. I finally gave up and took his photograph. As he looked at the images on the back of the camera he broke out in a wide smile, nodded and walked away. Little did I know that I’d just taken two of my favorite photos of the entire 5 weeks. Their faces show the hard life of the farmer as much as their traditional white clothes and hats. I’ve spent a great deal of time looking into their eyes and studying their expressions. Yet, it was just today that I realized that this guy has no eyebrows. Does he shave them? Genetic? I’ll never know but I’ll also never tire of smiling at the image. Again, please click for a larger version.